Rural people sometimes give directions according to local landmarks. “Turn right at the Johnson place,” you’re told, and it’s assumed that you know who the Johnsons are and where they live. But get directions from an old-timer and you may be told, “Turn right where the Johnson place used to be.”
Live in a place long enough and the landscape acquires multiple layers of occupation, and landmarks that are invisible to anyone under a certain age. The place merges with its memories.
The chapter “Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors” isn’t as pithy or quotable as most other chapters of Walden. Thoreau seems more wistful and less eager to teach. He starts off by telling stories about people who used to live near Walden Pond, homes that used to be here. Several of the people he writes about were black or otherwise outsiders to mainstream Concord society — and it’s not hard to see why Henry might identify with that. But it took me a while to realize what else he was doing. More about that below. First, a story:
Henry tells of a fire at Breed’s “hut,” about a dozen years earlier. Henry was among the townsmen who ran to the fire as part of a makeshift community fire brigade. When they arrived the house was already too far gone to save and they watched it burn to the ground.
The next day Henry was passing by when, “hearing a low moaning at this spot, I drew near in the dark, and discovered the only survivor of the family that I know, the heir of both its virtues and its vices, who alone was interested in this burning, lying on his stomach and looking over the cellar wall at the still smouldering cinders beneath, muttering to himself, as is his wont. He had been working far off in the river meadows all day, and had improved the first moments that he could call his own to visit the home of his fathers and his youth. He gazed into the cellar from all sides and points of view by turns, always lying down to it, as if there was some treasure, which he remembered, concealed between the stones, where there was absolutely nothing but a heap of bricks and ashes. The house being gone, he looked at what there was left. He was soothed by the sympathy which my mere presence, implied, and showed me, as well as the darkness permitted, where the well was covered up; which, thank Heaven, could never be burned; and he groped long about the wall to find the well-sweep which his father had cut and mounted, feeling for the iron hook or staple by which a burden had been fastened to the heavy end — all that he could now cling to — to convince me that it was no common ‘rider.’ I felt it, and still remark it almost daily in my walks, for by it hangs the history of a family.”
A well-sweep was part of a pole-and-fulcrum device for lowering and raising a bucket in a well. A rider was part of a wooden fence. But the important thing was that the man’s father had made it, and now it was the only piece of the family home he had left — “by it hangs the history of a family,” as Henry writes.
What is Thoreau doing in this chapter? He’s filling in some blank spaces on what you might call a “deep map” of the place. “Deep map” is an expression coined by William Least Heat-Moon in his 1987 book PrairyErth, a thick volume about a single rural county in Kansas, a quirky and engrossing blend of journalism, history, folklore, natural history, and spirituality… a book clearly inspired, at least in part, by Walden. Both writers believe that to know a place, you have to know in many different ways on different levels — and the memory of the place, as much as you can retrieve it — is something that will deepen your relationship with the land.
(About “A Year in Walden”)